This Orthodox Israeli Rabbi Is an Ultra-liberal and Not Ashamed of It

Rabbi Benny Lau has attracted a growing non-Orthodox following with his progressive views on a range of hot-button religious, political and social issues.

Rabbi Benny Lau, head of 929, an initiative to get Israelis of all stripes to study Bible together online, August 4, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

“Me? Out of the box?” Rabbi Benny Lau seems taken aback by the question. “I’m as conventional as they get,” he insists.

But the question, as he knows well, doesn’t come from left field. Lau, 54, a prominent Orthodox rabbi long associated with what is known in Israel as religious Zionism (the equivalent of modern Orthodoxy), has in recent weeks been espousing views that many Israelis would not consider to be very orthodox.

First came his response to controversial remarks made about a month ago by the head of an esteemed religious Zionist institution. Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, director of the pre-military academy at the West Bank settlement of Eli, referred to homosexuals as “perverts” and to Reform Jews as “Christians.” In a response shared with close to 20,000 followers on his Facebook page, Lau accused Levinstein of “a terrible affront to human dignity that could even jeopardize lives,” and denounced him for “declaring war on all those who interpret Jewish values differently from him.” And this was after 300 religious Zionist rabbis had signed a letter of support for Levinstein.

Then came Lau’s denunciation of Makor Rishon, a popular newspaper among Israel’s religious Zionist community. Lau called out the editors for a gloating headline they ran on a story about the new chief education officer of the Israel Defense Forces. The headline focused not on the man who landed the job, one of “their own,” but on the woman who didn’t get it: an active and well-known Conservative Jew. “A sense of relief among religious Zionists” – it declared.

In a post on his Facebook page, just a few days after the furor sparked by Levinstein, Lau lashed out the Makor Rishon editors, calling the headline “hurtful” and “fallacious,” and noting that he, for one, did not feel any relief that a Conservative woman had been beaten out of the army job.

Back to the question of whether he fits “in the box,” he is willing to make this concession: “I still maintain that I’m in the box. It’s just that the box has moved and now I’m at the far edge of it. Sure, there are many people who would rather I be pushed outside altogether, but I’m still very Orthodox and very much a Zionist – so whether they like it or not, I’m still inside.”

Still, when Lau speaks his mind, many religious Zionists cringe in response. Not only because they find his views too progressive for their taste, but also because of the huge public forums – social media, for example – in which he chooses to express them. But that very ability to go against the grain has also won him a large and growing following among non-Orthodox and secular Israelis. For many of them, Lau is a rare voice of moderation in a community that has veered further and further to the right in recent decades.

He may not have legions behinds him, at least not in the Orthodox world, as his detractors are quick to point out, but when Lau speaks, people listen. As Tomer Persico, a keen observer of the Israeli religious landscape notes: “He’s definitely not a consensus figure in the religious Zionist camp, but I believe that more and more people are beginning to identify with what he has to say, even though they may be hesitant to express themselves in the same way.”

Persico, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, notes that Lau has always been a liberal. What has changed is his willingness to make his voice heard loudly. “And that voice is an important voice, even if he doesn’t have many followers,” Persico adds.

Rabbi Benny Lau, a leading figure in Israel's religious Zionist movement, August 4, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

It is also hard to ignore his name. A descendant of a rabbinic dynasty, Lau is the nephew of Yisrael Meir Lau, a former chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel and the current chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. He is the first cousin of David Lau, the current chief Ashkenazi rabbi. His late father, Naphtali Lau-Lavie, was a prominent Israeli journalist and diplomat.

A different drum

Lau has been marching to the beat of a different drum for some time now. Disturbed by the growing rift between religious and non-religious Jews in the country after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, he helped spearhead a movement to promote reconciliation between the two communities. For many years, observant Jews tended to stay away from the annual commemoration ceremonies for the slain Israeli leader, feeling both unwelcome and uncomfortable because the assassin had been a product of their religious Zionist world.

About five years ago, Lau encouraged hundreds of members of Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement, to attend the annual memorial event at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. He also volunteered to be the keynote speaker there. His presence on the podium and the prevalence of so many yarmulkes in the crowd spoke volumes to the regular participants.

Following the murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki by a religious fanatic at last year’s Jerusalem gay pride parade, Lau was among the first Orthodox leaders to demand that members of his movement rethink their attitudes toward the LGBT community. He also constituted the rare example of a prominent religious Zionist authority who expressed his outrage publicly over the firebombing of a Palestinian home in the village of Duma a year ago, which left three family members dead, and the brutal murder in 2014 of the Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

Even if the term is a common epithet in religious Zionist circles, Lau is not ashamed to describe himself as a “leftist.” Yet, as he recounts, he didn’t start out that way. As a teenager, like many of his generation, Lau was inspired by the settler movement. Indeed, along with his friends from Bnei Akiva, he stood hand-in-hand with the demonstrators at Sebastia, the site of the first modern-day Jewish settlement in the West Bank , as they protested government efforts to keep them away.

No divine precedence

Lau’s mentor and role model was the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital, head of the Har Etzion yeshiva and a founding member of Meimad, a now-defunct political party that represented religious moderates. It was Amital who ultimately influenced his change of heart about the settlement enterprise, he says now.

“I have always felt a deep attachment to Judea and Samaria because of the Bible,” concedes Lau, “but at some point, we began to understand that while fighting for the land, we were losing the people. As far back as the early 1980s, Rabbi Amital would tell us that the people take precedence over the land, and I have always embraced that legacy.”

Rabbi Benny Lau at a social justice demonstration in Jerusalem, August 2, 2011.
Emil Salman

It should come as no surprise that Lau does not vote for Habayit Hayehudi – the right-wing party affiliated with the religious Zionist movement in Israel. “I’m a disciple of my father’s in that way,” he says. “My father never believed there was a need for religious parties and neither do I. “

Still, he prefers the term “liberal” to “leftist.” And “liberal Orthodox” is how he defines himself religiously, keenly aware, though, of the inherent contradiction in terms. “I know that it’s complicated,” he acknowledges. In liberal Orthodoxy, according to Lau’s definition, God and man carry equal weight – as opposed to the more rigid streams of Orthodoxy, where God tends to take precedence.

When Lau was growing up, he recalls, Bnei Akiva – today the largest Zionist youth movement in the world – was much different than it is today. Boys and girls hung out together, danced together and sang together.

The girls even wore pants back then. If the current generation of Bnei Akiva activists is more Orthodox and less modern, Lau suggests, it is because of a split that developed in religious Zionism back when he was a young member.

On one side were people like himself, followers of Amital, who embraced modernity, while on the other were graduates of another well-known yeshiva, Mercaz Harav, who felt threatened by it.

“Rabbi Amital’s followers were encouraged to go to university and get a profession,” he notes. “They became doctors, lawyers, engineers – but not teachers. That left all the teaching jobs to the others who feared modernity.”

The “good news,” as he puts it, is that the effects of this trend are not irreversible: “Most of the kids in the religious Zionist schools and in Bnei Akiva today come from homes that are less stringent, so once they grow up and get out into the world, their minds begin to open.”

For that reason, he says, he is less concerned about the influence of hard-line Orthodoxy on the Israeli school system than he is about its growing reach in the army. These concerns, Lau adds, are what prompted his recent Facebook posts, which ultimately received thousands of shares.

In the first post, Lau called out a prominent religious-Zionist rabbi (Levinstein) who, by virtue of his position at a pre-military academy, enjoys considerable influence over new IDF inductees. In the second post, he directed his anger against the Orthodox Israelis fighting for control over the army’s educational activities.

Lau insists he is “not a person of wars,” but rather one who consistently seeks dialogue and common ground. How to explain, then, his recent attacks on social media? “I was addressing those people who don’t want any dialogue but just want to control every aspect of life here, their latest target being the army,” he responds. “These are people who don’t want to listen to anybody else, and I felt that if they don’t want to listen, I’ll have to make my voice heard in a different way.”

Levinstein’s attack on homosexuals and non-Orthodox Jews touched a particularly raw nerve for Lau: His younger brother, Amichai Lau-Lavie, is an openly gay Conservative rabbi in the United States.

“I’m certain that it has affected me,” says Lau, noting that because of this personal experience, he is often sought out for advice and guidance by Orthodox members of the LGBT community, their parents and siblings.

For his part, Yehuda Yifrach, a well-known Orthodox journalist, did not like the recent posts by Lau, and accused him of being politically motivated.

“Could it be that Rabbi Benny Lau has decided to embark on a political career and brand himself as the leader of the religious left?” Yifrach asked in a widely shared Facebook post. After Lau assured him he had no such plans, Yifrach posted an update to his followers. “What a shame ... I wish Rabbi Benny did have political aspirations,” one woman lamented, in a comment. She wasn’t alone.

But as Lau himself explains – he’s simply not cut out for politics. “A successful politician has to be cynical and tough, manipulative in the positive sense, and in possession of a fighting personality,” he says. “That’s not me.”

Besides serving for the past 16 years as the rabbi of the Ramban synagogue in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, Lau has been devoting considerable time and energy to his new pet project: 929, an initiative to get Israelis of all stripes and colors to study Bible together online. (The name of the project refers to the number of chapters in the Bible.) At last count, says Lau, there were 100,000 regular participants in the project and another 80,000 who drop in every so often. The overwhelming majority of participants, he notes, are not Orthodox.

As Lau sees it, through its membership, 929 contains the seeds of a new movement in Israel – one that cuts across all the traditional religious and political divides. “Within another three years, I estimate we’ll have 500,000 Israelis on board,” he says. “And that’s a number you can do something with.”

What exactly? “That’s a question I don’t have the answer to yet,” he concedes with a smile.